Chris Anderson opens his 2012 book, Makers, with a story about his maternal grandfather, Fred Hauser. Anderson recalls a childhood experience spending a summer with his grandfather at his bungalow in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“He announced that we would be making a four-stroke gasoline engine and that he had ordered a kit we could build together,” Anderson writes. Familiar with constructing models, Anderson assumed that the box containing the kit would be filled with numerous numbered parts and assembly instructions. “Instead, there were three big blocks of metal and a crudely cast engine casting. And a large blue-print, a single sheet folded many times.”
As Anderson recalls, his grandfather deployed the standard hobby machinist equipment kept in his garage — “a drill press, a band saw, a jig saw, grinders, and, most important, a full-size metal lathe” — to slowly extract and polish from the blocks the many pieces that ultimately fit together into a functioning engine. “We had conjured a precision machine from a lump of metal. We were a mini-factory, and we could make anything.”
There’s great fulfillment in applying skill to slowly create something useful that didn’t previously exist — a reaction that’s likely embedded in our genes as a lost nudge toward survival-enhancing paleolithic productivity. Matt Crawford perhaps summarizes this reality best in Shop Class as Soulcraft, when he writes: “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.”
And then we consider our current moment.
For most “non-essential” workers, the past two months have delivered a professional experience that’s exactly the opposite of Fred Hauser running a metal lathe in his California garage. Instead of manifesting ourselves concretely in the world, we endlessly pass digital messages back and forth, taking breaks only to talk to each other about these messages over cramped video conference screens.
Before the pandemic, the ritual of traveling to a physical office helped obfuscate the disembodied nature of most knowledge work. But when this element was stripped away, the intrinsic abstraction of our efforts became impossible to miss. Fred Hauser ended his spring with a working four-stroke engine. We’ll end ours with an email inbox fuller than when we began.
This observation matters because as many consider a deep reset in response to recent events, work has emerged as an important topic.
There’s something uniquely misery-making about days spent in a Makework Matrix of ceaseless digital communication that doesn’t seem to generate much beyond additional digital communication — we’re simply not wired for this as a species. Not surprisingly, I’ve received an increasing number of messages from Office Space Neos, tumbled into a state of introspection by the disruption of the lockdowns, and now wondering if they can tolerate this digitized busyness for the decades that remain before their retirement.
I don’t have a comprehensive answer to offer at the moment, but here are a few thoughts that come to mind about the responses to this reality we might see in the months and years ahead:
- More solo entrepreneurs and freelancers experimenting with radical work setups that prioritize focused craft and minimize the digital ephemera that they were told was critical to crushing it, but might instead be crushing their soul.
- A shift in entrepreneurial circles aways from digital endeavors — apps, content production — and toward small-batch physical manufacturing (Anderson’s book offers a useful survey of this general shift; a good specific case study is my friend Forest Prichard’s recent book on starting a farm.)
- Hopefully: larger knowledge work organizations will also finally start taking workflow seriously; moving away from communication free-for-alls that turn everyone into a mix of human network routers and glorified administrative assistants, and toward more structured and focused work (stay tuned on this: I have a big new book on this particular topic coming out next year).
In the meantime, our current pause presents a good opportunity to think critically about what “work” means to you now, and what it could mean in a reset life. Or at the very least, give you a push to dust off the metal lathe in the back of your garage.
126 thoughts on “The Lost Satisfactions of Manual Competence”
Thank you! This is one of the best blog posts I’ve read in ages!
I used to think I was lacking in physical skills and unable to do a lot of handy work around the house or fixing things with my own hands whenever needed. However, after reading My Own Country by Abraham Verghese I realized I was wrong. As a physician, I think craft also applies to the physical exam, where you use your senses, and different tools-a stethoscope, a hammer, a flashlight-to create a hands-on ritual between you and the patient. The final product is the creation of a firm relationship mediated by touch. This is a true satisfaction gained by manual competence and a great source of fulfillment. (It also only took 15 years to realize, I finished the book yesterday).
Quite a few years ago, my wife asked why I liked working in the cabinet shop. I told her that I start with a pile of material, and wind up with cabinets and a pile, hopefully small, of scrap. One can see the result of ones labor.
A a physician, the results are a bit harder to total up, but the result should be a healthier person, no small feat.
Totally on the spot Rick. It´s pretty astounding It took me so long to figure it out though. I have also started cooking, and this manual activity is surprisingly fulfilling (and challenging at times) too. The rewards are delicious when done right. Thanks for the reply.
I’m doing a lot of manual labor lately, including removing a ton of rocks from my backtyard to help the grass grow better. It’s slow, time consuming, and could easily be done faster by hiring a pro with a machine to bulldoze the lawn. That said, I feel tremendously satisfied, and am learning a lot about grass (and my own lawn) in the process of doing my manual labor. In a few years, my lawn will be lush and full (and I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing I did it!).
There really is something great about doing it yourself. It’s not always about just getting to the end state as fast as possible, you know? It’s often the process of doing something hard that is so rewarding. Plus, when you have a full lawn of grass, you’ll look at it each day with much more gratitude because you’ll know how much work went into it!
I’ve seen your point about the “satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence” play out often with my knowledge-work coworkers. Even after a productive day at the office, it can sometimes feel empty when we realize the fruit of our effort resides inside a computer. Many of my coworkers offset that feeling with some sort of manual labor at home after the work day. The result of becoming “quiet and easy” through this effort brings to mind the bible verse about “making it your ambition to lead a quiet life, minding your own business, and working with your hands.” You’re on to something Cal, and I’m ready to follow your lead!
Your quote of that scripture led me to look it up, and it was exactly what I needed to hear and know. Led me to multiple cross references that also lended help in my thinking and reviewing where I was at. No such thing as coincident, eh? Blessings.
Definitely not a coincidence! I need that reminder to slow down often. Thanks for the reply.
1 Thessalonians 4:11-12…solid reference
I agree! It was the first thing that came to mind. Thanks!
We definitely don’t want to become human network routers, but I think this post is too hard on “digital endeavors.” After all, much of your own work is geared to producing books and journal articles, which these days are often pixels on a screen. Does this mean they are simply “digital ephemera”?
Maybe it would help to have some examples of “good” and “bad” knowledge work. We can all agree that a day spent sending and receiving email is not a great use of time. And many online articles could be classified as ephemera. But other knowledge workers are producing software, books, articles, and scientific theories, with no physical manifestation. Is there something inherently inferior about these, just because we happen to descend from creatures who spent most of their day interacting with the physical world?
To answer your question: yes. And the article above touches on the explanation of why.
I haven’t commented before, but I have read Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. As the owner of a small law firm, I have been deeply influenced by your writing, and have slowly been adjusting my own work to prioritize focusing on, well, focus. It’s hard because as a partner, I do have quite a bit of shallow work (business admin, answering questions from paralegals, etc…) in addition to the need for focused work. After 15 years of not prioritizing focused work but fitting it in between shallow work (including days when I seem to do nothing but answer e-mails and staff questions), I, frankly, find it hard to focus. It has been a challenge to re-learn how. But we have been making great strides in changing how we communicate, and I have notified my staff that I am not available all day. Working from home has helped greatly because I am not on the other side of a door, and I can control when I answer questions (including holding an hour of “office hours” each day when they know I will respond to questions). Being a lawyer can be soul sucking and stressful, but I find it to be a profession that is intensely meaningful, particularly in the human rights realm where I work. Yet, all of the advice for lawyers and law firms tends toward: how to be more productive, how to grow your practice, how to go, go, go and fill every moment of every day, and that is exhausting. But my “deep reset” has allowed me to look at the firm more holistically: As a business owner, what do I want? Do I want arbitrary growth for the purposes of growth? Is it enough that I earn a living not just for my own family, but also support the families of my staff members? And what is productivity but filling our days with extra work? I now know that I can do my 9 hour work day in 5 or 6 hours, and I question that if I can do it in 6 hours, can I be more efficient, and do it in 5 or even 4? (I work with flat fees, so I don’t have to bill by the hour). I’ve been thinking deeply about how I can be a “slow” or “analog” lawyer and use technology to my benefit, while ignoring all of the technology thrown at me that will supposedly make my life easier. I have been taking copious notes of your blog posts these past few weeks and I cannot wait to read your new book!
“And what is productivity but filling our days with extra work?” You’ve perfectly captured a feeling I’ve had for a long time but didn’t quite know how to express regarding the productivity “movement” and the need to be constantly doing and moving on to yet another task just so we can say (to whom?) that we’ve been “productive.” Thank you.
I agree with this! I recently left a side gig, that seemed like a dream job on the surface, because the company’s goal was just to continue to grow and get bigger. I saw the trend of everyone above me getting overworked with no clear reason why. I used to be so on board with “go go go” but now, thanks largely to Cal, I’m focusing on doing less, doing them better, and knowing why!
As a lawyer who quit and went into academia because none of it felt like ‘deep work,’ I really appreciate this take on your practice.
Loved your thoughtful post. I am a teacher (single Dad) on sabbatical this year and have been amazed at how the lock down has sucked away all my time with child-care and domestic work (satisfying, but not “enough”). I have had to reset myself and prioritize “real work” to avoid the rabbit holes on screens. Thanks for several good ideas.
I read Matt Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft article when it first published and it was very impactful to me. Although I find resistance crop up before starting physical maker tasks, I always get immense satisfaction when the results are first class and I know that I executed well.
As a father of four children aged between 11 and 18, I can’t help but wonder whether this sense of material emptiness is just the curse or melancholy of those of us who are in that transitional generation between physical and digital. One of my four children senses the beauty of some physical – using my DJ set with vinyl as opposed to the more precisely inhuman manifestation in his mobile phone app. The others, however, genuinely don’t seem that concerned.
Thank you for this Cal. I felt this sense of empowerment when learning to cook. Creating some of my favorite restaurant meals with scratch ingredients feels like magic sometimes. To be able to nourish myself and people I love with this knowledge makes it very rewarding.
I don’t think this is the new normal; I think this is the end of the way things were. We have yet to see the new normal. The human race will face a continuing series of plagues due to the lack of regulations of global commerce that will regularly threaten the species. My viewpoint of the onset of regular pandemics is formed from reading “The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett. The species will also face a increasing hostile planet racked by climate change requiring low greenhouse gas emission, and resilient architecture as well as survival planning. My thinking on climate change was formed by working for the DOE for 4 years on a project to minimize climate change which was featured in Popular Science magazine. Fundamentally, we need to form some kind of highly limited global government ratified by treaty that addresses the twin threats of pandemic and climate change on a global level. In addition, the world need to radically shift from eating a high animal protein diet and shift to plant based protein diet to address both the pandemics and climate change threats in the long term. Being a lawyer and engineer, a highly limited global government is the only systemic solution to address these systemic problems in our world which cannot be adequately addressed on a national level. However, the US nation needs to have the corrupt cabal of special interests ejected from power in Washington that continue to protect, promote and encourage the old technological industries that created the twin threats to humanity in the first place. Hence the resurgence of nationalism to resist any positive change for the old, corrupt interests of the power elite.
As Pogo said: “We have met the enemy, and He is Us.” God help your ‘worldwide government’. We are not there yet. And may not get there. It’s a LOOONG trip. Bon voyage….
Give the fact that widespread protests and President Trump declaring martial law, the current system you seem so comfortable with is clearly not working and will not last. We can crash into world government under the Trump model of “domination”, i.e. fascism, or we can attempt to limit and control world government in a rational manor. The status quo is not an acceptable solution to the masses as demonstrated by the civil unrest.
HORSE EXHAUST 1
Please submit alternative solutions or factual information to rebut my argument. Name calling will not solve the problems of pandemic and climate change.
The EAT-Lancet Commission Report on plant-based diets has been widely discredited by the vast majority of real scientists and nutritional researchers the world over. Plant-based diets alone will not save the world, nor are they all that nutritious or well-balanced for us homo sapiens. Also your post detracts from the original concerns and emphasis within the article, which is the value of manual crafts and the creative (or even perhaps spiritual) value of practical physical endeavors.
Animal protein diet is a significant causative factor of pandemics according to Michael Greger M.D. FACLM. Dr. Gregor was the Public Health Director at the HSUS in Washington DC. See YouTube video titled “Pandemics: History & Prevention” in the link below. video:
I do not believe the EAT study supports your position, and actually recommends a plant based diet for climate change as well as human health. However, Michael Greger, MD FACLM indicates that the main reason to switch to a plant based diet is actually to minimize the risk of pandemic so your point is moot. See YouTube video “Pandemics: History & Prevention” by Dr. Gregor. Link below:
Cal do you have 2 versions of your latest book? One was published Feb 2019 and the other Mar 2020?! I’m just not sure which one to get. I’m in Sydney and Booktopia online is what I use to order books…
Sorry here’s the link
In thinking about this post, it occurred to me that writing often feels like craftsmanship to me…writing a poem feels most like building something, then short personal essays, then academic essays and reviews.
I stumbled across the benefits of manual work and creation a while back too. One small way I manage to engage this is through cooking. When I finish work, I’ve often worked to the point where my brain has a fried and burnt-out feeling. At that point, higher-level leisure activities like reading or something intellectually engaging just don’t work. Although Netflix or something very passive feels appealing in that burnt-out state, it rarely makes it the feeling go away or makes me feel better. But I’ve noticed that cooking when I get home really helps.
Cooking even complex or fancier meals – my favourite – is just engaging but automatic enough to put you into that flow-like state. You get the creative satisfaction of having taken the raw materials (onions, flour, oils, etc.), applied the tools of the craft (knives, pans, heat, etc.), and created something entirely unique – and tasty. Like a craftsman, you also get the satisfaction of constant improvement, whether through tweaking recipes or increasing your efficiency while cooking.
Once I’m done, I feel refreshed and alive again and ready to engage in active, creative leisure activities instead of passive, consumptive ones.
It’s fun to imagine a future where machines do all digital work like programming and humans do all manual work, not even wanting to look at these toxic screens…
“…and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”
??1 Thessalonians? ?4:11-12? ?
This was my same thought as well!
I know you’ve said “don’t click like”, but I would if there was a like button on this post. New book!!! 😀
The houses you see everywhere are monuments to those that DO and PRODUCE something actual. A huge amount of those living in them produce nothing.
I worked as VP Adm., a real Office “paperwork” type of job. When I worked for Contractors that “made things”, like Buildings, Water Systems or Rail Lines was so fulfilling. I enjoyed the people who worked with their hands so much more than the Office paper pushes like me. Sadly, the Lawyer “talkers” got rich Bankrupted the “maker of stuff” people. This Crisis will Bankrupt many more “doers” as the “talkers” data pushers get rich taking control.
I grew up on a ranch in Texas raised by my mother and grandmother. My grandmother could wield a circular saw. I was using a chainsaw at 12. I went on to find my career as a Chef opening large hotels for major chains. Funny enough I was good at ice carving which required a chainsaw. While cooking is very much a mechanical skill I also enjoyed cars, motorcycles and remodeling various homes over the years. I take great pride in the fact that my teenage daughter has helped with numerous projects but also knows how to use my compound miter saw, I’m trying to teach her how to weld but she is not that interested. I do feel sorry for her future husband as she will no doubt have far better mechanical skills than he does. just a theory but I do think that there is definitely a decline in “hobbies” that require some mechanical apptitude.
Go back, at least as far as the mid 1950’s, and pick up a copy of “Trustee from the Toolroom” (Nevil Shute Norway). Even so far away as that, the idolization of those of us who have made something physical with our own hands is there- in the real life form of Edgar T. Westbury. NSN made no bones about finding craftsmanship interesting- if you read “Slide Rule” as well, he goes into some depth in it, both with R101 and the woodworkers of various forms involved in Airspeed.
The other classical UK book series I am aware of is “The Landscape Trilogy” by LTC Rolt. He was heavily involved in early Canal and Railway preservation in the UK.
I have to say that the day you travel behind your own creation, is an interesting one…the first time that what you made makes you go. I’ve been on and off again as a model engineer since I was 8-9, and have built my own railway engine, as well as fixing many other similar mechanical contrivances. It lead me into a good career as a Marine Engineer, ending as an Artificer, in the Canadian Forces, and now on to a quiet retirement job :). Awash on a sea of projects- the railway in the yard won’t finish it-self, and the steam tractor could do with a run…
Great article. Coming from a family that threw nothing away but repaired it, I was taught all kinds of skills from mechanics, welding and wood working. Just finished a 73inch wide solid Red Oak TV stand in South West style that I’ve been offered $4000.00 to build another. Not going to happen, don’t need the money and if I did build it, it would be a job and not fun and I’m retired (twice). People who refuse to learn manual skills have no idea what they are missing out on as it is a great stress relief
A few years ago I was involved with helping a physicist develop a new piece of healthcare technology. We submitted it for venture capital seed money or an award, I can’t remember now, that was soliciting “technology” that could could be developed and marketed in the business world. Well, the winners were all “apps” with zero hands-on, mechanical, electrical or other physical features that really did anything. The sponsors weren’t even looking for “technology” as we know it. That’s why I honestly think we can’t put another man on the moon anymore. Everything, even the hatches, would have to be electronic; engineers wouldn’t even know how to design mechanical switches; there would be excessive risk-aversion, managers appointed and managing by political correctness, gigantic cost and time overruns, not to mention constant sniping from the media depending on who’s president. Instead of a “can-do” attitude there would be a “you can’t do this” attitude.
As someone who retired from N.A.S.A., at Dryden Fight Research Center as a mechanical Maintenance Engineer, I saw the people not able to continue to produce results like their Fathers, and Grandfathers did. With the political sniping, and the inability to conceptualize in the younger men and Women, we have a class that only produce paper junk, and have no idea how to build a machine, switch, or even clean up after them selves ! We in the maintenance, could work on Plumbing, Electrical, Pneumatics, and Hydraulics. as well as build walls, Air Supply and Water Delivery Systems, then fix the Sanitary Systems, and lastly, do the daily checks of HVAC, and Fire Suppression. Today, the base contracts that out to Foreign Workers, who are not sometimes even vetted for Security.
Did you work in the trades as a career or just do that on the side?
I’m now 67 and started “fixing” my bikes, when I was very young. I got them from a dump 3 miles from our house. This evolved into bigger more complicated machinery and the required knowledge of electricity to make some of them work. I am a retired Machine Repairman and am proud to say that I have had only one repairman in my house in 40 years of ownership. I have repaired washers, dryers, refrigerators, vehicles and etc. Nothing wrong with manual labor, it has served me well. I have two sons that are very good on computers and I admire their abilities also!
Cooking always did it for me. I can spend three hours in the kitchen creating meals from scratch. I recrntly discovered Francis Mallman…cooking on steroids!!! Now to signify the end of the workday, I build a fire. Then, cook something over it. Bliss!
Maybe this is why the “baking craze” has taken hold.
Great blog. I can totally relate.
I remember being 5 years old and shivering to hold the drop light on target while my father and grandfather put brakes on the old Chevy. That early start led me to jobs as automobile mechanic, motorcycle mechanic, and aircraft mechanic – alternating between all and mixing with hobbies of the same nature.
I remember the day I found paper clips in my laundry instead of the normal nuts, bolts, washers, and rivets. I had finally “moved up” to a white collar job and things were different. I had an “important” job now! However, there was no longer the satisfaction of the firing up of the engine or the successful test ride. I look at it as when I stopped doing “real work” and started doing “support work.”
I kept my hobbies just to maintain the satisfaction that comes with affecting change on 3-dimensional objects. Things I can see, hear, and feel that work better today because I applied my knowledge, energy, and touch. I find it satisfying to look and look again at a project I complete because my career work is very dissatisfying. Always another meeting to talk about “real work” but never doing anything I can see, hear,or feel.
Sorry, but meeting a major milestone in a big project just does not seem to bring the same satisfaction as test riding a motorcycle I assembled from parts collected off craigslist and ebay.
An old skill I witnessed as a child in the 50’s I try to stay basically competent at is swinging an ax. It is unlikely I will ever need to be able to chop kindling for the cook stove but the satisfaction of taking a stump out of the yard with an ax as opposed to a stump grinder is reward enough.
This sounds awesome! My fiance and I took a chainsaw to a stump in our yard the other day with great satisfaction. But I can only imagine doing the same with an ax!
I am a little late with my reply but I want to offer my perspective nonetheless. I grew up on a farm where I had to help out all the time. As a child I sometimes despised it, now that I am older I crave it. I always dreamed of living in the big city, I always wanted to get away from my origins and I wanted to do the purest form of thought work. Now that I have moved to one of the biggest urban areas on the planet (Tokyo) and I am pursuing mental work in the form of a PhD I noticed how a life without the manifestation of my work in the real world is tipping me off balance. I like my work, I like programming, designing studies and trying to generate new knowledge and yet, there is something incredibly satisfactory when I do “low, manual tasks”. The immediate feedback of (for example) bicycle maintenance has an entirely different quality when compared to debugging and deploying software. Now in the big city I came to appreciate manual work and I always look forward when something needs maintenance. I don’t know if it is okay to post my own content but I have recently also written about the topic on my blog. If you are interested in my perspective on the topic you can find it here: https://www.palladion.it/do-it-yourself/crafting-as-therapy/
The Name Fred Hauser Jumped out at me as I had a maternal Uncle named Fred Hauser who lived in Los Angeles. During the 1940s & 50s he was district attorney for the city of Los Angeles. He was my grandmothers younger brother. I had the privilege of meeting him when I was in my 20’s, he was in his 70’s. Born in 1906? But we did not know too much about Uncle Fred accept his professional career. I do mechanical restoration myself, so your article really resonates with me. The personal satisfaction that comes with creating something or bringing it back to life is very fulfilling. The name Fred Hauser could be a common name, especially in a large city like Los Angeles. Thanks for the memories
I grew up in the 1960-1970s. Everything then was analog and physical (at least in the working-class home I grew up in. I ended up being a surgeon. There is a direct relationship. I agree with the notion that we have lost connection with our concrete world. However I do not know that if “longing” for a renewed interest in the physical world is nostalgia from those of my generation or a valuable precept for moving forward. My GenZ kids definitely have an opinion: “Ok boomer” as they watch TikTok.
I totally agree. As a fellow physician (internal medicine/neurology), I can´t help but wonder how you integrate deep work into your medical practice. Would you care to share any thoughts?
Very insightful. You nailed it. When I was a shop teacher, one of my students told me, “My grades in my other classes are going up because of this one.” There is just something about being able to “DO” something that frees the spirit and one’s self confidence to achieve.
I think that we need to add a class analysis to this discussion. Growing up in the 1960s with expectations of attending college and getting a “good” job as a consequence I knew that manual labor was for the less intelligent folks who were too dumb and unworthy of improving their station in life. This was nonsense, of course, but it was mainstream ideology.
“Natural” class distinctions, are only one of many erroneous conventional wisdoms that are embedded in our national psyche. It would do us all well if we all look closely at the axioms that we have been taught NOT to examine let alone question.
My parents were/are Upper Lower class/Lower Middle class, “blue collar” workers. My dad was a professional automotive mechanic and, while I didn’t intend to become a professional mechanic myself, I wanted to learn about fixing cars for fun. It was something that could have been a great parent/child activity, but he avoided teaching myself and my siblings because he worried that we would follow in his footsteps. Mom & dad wanted us to go on to college and climb the social latter into “white collar” work, and they were worried we wouldn’t do that if we became too interested in manual work. Well, we did climb the social latter…and yes, we earn good money and are a lot better off than our parents were…but there’s something missing…
It is important that we don’t get caught up in looking for our daily jobs to give us this deep flow and remembrance of our manual roots.Yes it wold be ideal but not all of us have manual jobs or can really jump into that kind of work right now, or we didn’t choose it as our career path. we are called to make the most of what we have and should take the time to see what is the craft part of our work. I have an Electrical Engineering degree but the work I do is on systems as a whole. I do wish I was knee deep in wires but if I try an find rest i only that activity I will be insulting the work and learning I put in with my hands to get where I am today. So I do what I can outside to keep the tactile ability up. tying knots, washing my rims very exactingly. There are plenty of chances we get to work that out.
Nice article. I’m glad I grew up in farm and coal mine country and learned to work with my hands as well as my head. Both go together. In some careers we may use more of one than the other or both equally. It is similar with the digital vs, non-digital world. Learning to work with my hands I learned to work with whatever tool or tools and resources were at-hand. The same with digital. We need both non-digital and digital in our modern world. We cannot have what we have if we put too much emphasis on one or the other. I see this with new technicians and engineers that come into work. Those who only played computer games and learned from books are way behind those who worked with their hands, played with electronics and mechanics, and also learned computers; then graduated from college. When I entered the work force the expression was a person was either educated or book learned. Those with book learning only ended up struggling at work.
Power tools came into my life 50 or so years ago, and, old hand planes, saws, and chisels fell into disuse. Somehow, I had hung onto several chisels, a water stone, and, an old Stanley 14 inch hand plane. When my daughter, who lives 3000 miles away, wanted me to build a quilt rack, and send it to her, I realized that shipping costs would take the fun out of it unless I could minimize the size. I therefore decided to make the pieces, and, ship it to her for assembly.
To idiot-proof the assembly, I decided to go with mortise and tenon joints. I needed sharp tools. And, my chisels and the plane irons would have qualified as blunt instruments in a murder investigation! After some time on my slow moving whetstone, followed by gentle rubbing on a 4000/8000 grit water stone, blunt instruments turned into finely honed chisels and plane irons. I was amazed at what could be accomplished with Youtube and patience. But, the best was yet to come.
I had forgotten the sound of that iconic swoosh that a hand plane produces. I found myself planing just to hear that sound! And, then to the chisels! How therapeutic to watch and feel a precisely measured hole emerged in a simple piece of wood dictated by patient pushing and jabbing and prying with a simple hand tool! The end result became less important than the process.
Power tools make a noise and, in skilled hands, produce great products, but, unlike hand tools, could never be used as a substitute for Valium.
I share your love of sharpening and using these small, beautiful tools. I haven’t done any significant woodworking projects for years, but give me a blade to sharpen and a board to plane and I’m half-way to heaven. A close second is making every blade within the boundaries of my household sharp enough shave the hair off my arm.
I look back on my life (79 years) and realize that your hypothesis/theory/idea has been my hidden mantra almost all my life but especially in the last 10+ years. It still rings in my ears, my Dad telling me I should be an “Engineer” since I was so good with my hands. It was miserable trying to integrate those two disparate ideas For the last 10 years I’ve almost singlehandedly assembling a 48′ geodesic dome kit with a basement. The only outside help involved a concrete-pumper truck, a bull-dozer operator and some miscellaneous concrete workers. I’ve been welder, carpenter, plumber, architect, gardener, mason, electrician and acrobat. Very satisfying!
I teach drawing and filmmaking classes at the college level. Even though technology has brought wonderful advances to the creation of images, there is still something extraordinarily satisfying with doing so with the most primitive implements. It’s the idea of being able to rely solely on ourselves to manufacture something new with what’s in front of us. When I demonstrate in class, to some of my students it appears I’m doing magic as I execute a concept using just pencil and paper. I encourage my students to learn not only the digital technology that they’ll need to navigate the world they’re training for, but to polish the skills that brought the technology into being.
During this pandemic, I’ve realized the same satisfactions as I’ve expanded my cooking responsibilities. I look for forward to figuring out what will be the menu with what is in the pantry and refrigerator.
Thank you so much for making replies available. SO many of these articles suggested by “Pocket” won’t allow comments. And reading others’ and commenting is the only way we get to connect on good subjects.
I am going to suggest people read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. This was what the US was founded on, this is American Ingenuity. So it’s not just hands but brains together. This is why mining, and logging and farming are basic money makers, A farmer grows a pig or a chicken or a cow from grass /grain provided by rain, sun and God. Low cost input, and the animal gains meat and bone from this and then is sold as meat or eggs, and there’s the profit. Mining, the minerals is mined and made into usable things, including solar panels, (somehow all mining is considered evil by environmentalists (I used to be one) and is discouraged.)But there are ways to reclaim the land once the mining is done. There are always ways to be a responsible steward. But the point is responsible. We are being destroyed by the irresponsible stewards, (Monsanto, Bayer, Down, drug companies) and it’s time to take them to court and hold their feet to the fire. . Anyway, real capitalism is the little guy making his things and selling them or putting them to use. And not having a bunch of socialist laws restricting his freedom. (Again, personal responsibility comes it, there HAS to be a conscience. IF there isn’t we as a culture are doomed).
Or the barber or hairdresser making her living doing hair and nails, or the baker or cook serving delicious food to people, or the many various ways people can make a decent living. Not everyone wants to be a mogul. And they are fine with it. I grew up learning skills, cooking, baking, gardening, keeping animals, building cages, fences, sewing, embroidery, basketry, leather working, (bridles and horse gear), taxidermy, woodwork, most before I was 15. I loved to learn new skills. I enjoyed these skills. The crafts are great fun and calming to my soul. I think most people don’t get the same pleasure that I do. Sad. But also these skills, are what used to cause self satisfaction. Today, the Socialist public schools spent years trying to train self esteem into kids, by empty applause for no real skills. And it has only created a bunch of narcissists that are hard for the rest of us to deal with. They can’t even debate logically, they have no logic skills, or understanding about civics or law, or rights, If they had developed real self esteem from real goals and working at goals and working at skills to attain goals, they would be the hard working straight clean folks that we all find easier to get along with.
This is not entirely new. When I took an introductory Engineering course forty-five years ago, one of the texts urged us to take up a hands-on, non-intellectual hobby. (I think that gardening and carpentry were suggested. That was a time when it was still assumed that Engineers were men, and that domestic cooking was done by women.) Cooking, painting models, sewing, and even building internal combustion engines all sound like good additions to the list.
Another great book.
We Farm for a Hobby: And Make It Pay
by Henry Tetlow available in many forms for around $10 or less
Great article! Let’s get back to the basics. Just follow the rules.
Servitude is defined as providing a product or service.
Servitude is what most people do each day as a hobby or are
employed to do.
Lucky for us, servitude is voluntary in America, we just have
to teach our employees in congress to follow the one sentence
13th amendment !
I believe the future of work will be where one can work with their hands, heart and head in whatever degree required. Even that might change on daily, hourly or minute basis. Instead of reliance on technology, we might have to revert to the old fashioned ways of manual measurements, trial and error or just plain old horse sense to figure out a solution. Those of us that can still do that will be miles ahead instead of miles behind.
I’ve almost always been focused on physical endeavors. Perhaps not generation of new physical artifacts (I hate clutter!), but learning new skills that require physical presence (flying a plane, sailing, scuba, more recently an instrument, etc). So I’m not the target audience for this particular blog entry.
But your line towards the end:
“In the meantime, our current pause presents a good opportunity to think critically about what “work” means to you now, and what it could mean in a reset life.”
This weekend, I sat down and read through a chunk of The Knot Book (a textbook on knot theory – for those who don’t know, this is a branch of topology in mathematics). I have no background in topology, or in math beyond undergrad calc/diffeq. I have no use for this in my day to day life, in my job, or in my future career plans. Yet it was very real work (in that it was concrete effort for my brain). And it was driven by pure curiosity.
That’s the value I’m finding in this forced deep reset. It has made it easier to cut away things that get in the way of my life. It allows me to refocus on my most important goals. Which means the rest of the time, my brain can simply explore. It’s a throwback to your 2008 entry on the “activity vacation” – which I wish I’d taken more to heart at the time, though I wasn’t quite ready for the necessary paradigm shifts – but I’m seeing similar effects now.
Perhaps it’s a little silly to re-engage my academic side given that I am not in academia, but the increased room to engage in randomness, serendipity, curiosity… I’m finding it’s bringing meaning to my life. And though this topic is not relevant to my career, similar dynamics have led to me recently engaging in other things that *are* relevant to my career. That can only be a good thing.
I’m excited to see where this reawakened curiosity will take me.
A quick search of the internet will show numerous websites such as Hobby Machinist, catering to the budding machinist. Sherline tools has a world of material on their tabletop machinery, as does Taig. I have used these machines for years in clock repair. You can keep a machine shop in a closet. Groups io has numerous groups catering to crafts. Colleges and trade schools have classes in welding, machining, etc. The knowledge is there if you are willing to seek it. For me, there is an incredible satisfaction in returning a clock to operation that has not run in years. I never lost the satisfaction of manual competance.
I fix mechanical clocks. Many of them over 130 years old. It’s the first job that really fits me, after growing up on a farm and working in metal machining most of my life. I was 60 before I found a job I was happy to come to.
Making things was significantly a social experience. Canning fruit, making jam and things like that happened when there was a glut of raw material. It was all-hands-on-deck. Barn-raising and fence building was before my time but of the same ilk.
Those are better ways to socialize than sitting around dinner (although dinner is fine too). The teamwork aspect is significant. Tasks may be parceled out by aptitude. I have poor manual dexterity but I am strong have a lot of endurance.
This article sums up two trends that I’ve noticed, at least within the US.
One is the devaluation of manual labor. You can look at outsourcing trends for a good example of this. “Oh, I can train a monkey to do that.” is one refrain I’ve heard to justify low wages. First of all, I’d like to see them try, and second of all it seems to reflect the current attitude that only CEO’s and upper management actually earn their pay, while the rest of us are simply costs to be controlled or better yet eliminated for a bigger bonus next quarter, especially the factory floor workers.
Second, since I live in the Pacific Northwest I’ve witnessed the explosion of smaller scale such as Wine Making and craft brewing. Not only do you have to have the knowledge of how to create, market, and distribute such a product but it also involves a good amount of sweat equity in tending and assuring the quality of the raw materials(grapes, water, hops, barely, etc.), often using land that was at one time deemed worthless.
I’d say more but I want to get back to my own story writing, which as previously stated, is a sort of craft in itself.
Thanks for the article.
I spent 40 years in a machine shop with men who could fix or make anything. I find button pushing offers little in the way of satisfaction. A neighbor had a plaster nativity set and one of the figures suffered severe damage. I told her I could fix it and I did. It was better than new. The dollar value was very little but to this woman, I was like Michelangelo.
I feel happiest when working on my electronics projects (hardware, not software!) which have been my “hobby” of choice for about 50 years. That said, there is also mental work to be done. So, a good balance is what does the trick. I was even happier back when I could throw a pot or sculpt some stone in art class. But a full-on art studio is difficult to maintain in a single-room apartment!
There is much to learn and much that can be done to correct this imbalance in people as individuals and in society. As individuals, some people may have some difficulty confronting physical work. Afraid they will hurt themselves or something. This can be overcome.
In society, the big problem tends to be in confronting other people. People can be so annoying! Thankfully, there are solutions for this problem, too. So, do not despair! Spend some time outside of your normal physical and mental comfort zones and you could discover a lot!
We need more Fred Hausers in this world to guide the interests of young Chris Andersons to work with their hands and minds to understand how things work together in order to operate properly. its something that is being lost every day..Thanks
You say: “Before the pandemic, the ritual of traveling to a physical office helped obfuscate the disembodied nature of most knowledge work. But when this element was stripped away, the intrinsic abstraction of our efforts became impossible to miss.” I guess you (or whoever you are talking about) wasn’t paying much attention if you didn’t notice that there was no physical aspect to your work (opening mail and cleaning your desk don’t count).
You go on to say: “There’s something uniquely misery-making about days spent in a Makework Matrix of ceaseless digital communication that doesn’t seem to generate much beyond additional digital communication — we’re simply not wired for this as a species.” This is kind of right, but has a misleading implication. If you are in law, finance, tech, etc. you are engaged in ceaseless digital communication. The satisfaction in those areas comes when what you do results in something more tangible – you win a motion, you close a deal, you fix a bug. So yeah, if everything you do results in nothing, that is in fact miserable. But even if your days are spent in ceaseless digital communication (and the results communicated to you digitally), that does not by itself mean that your work is unsatisfying.
And you neglect one of the elephants in the room – that as a society the United States has chosen the path of disembodiment, of valuing “knowledge” work and devaluing physical work. We send manufacturing to China (and as a result largely kill it here) just because someone can make more $$$ that way. And then we discover that our physical stuff (smart phones, jet fighters, cars, blue jeans) is dependent on a country that may not always be our friend, and that we can’t really trust. Oops – maybe there were things more important than saving a hedge fund a few bucks.
We pay college graduates the most money if they go to Wall Street or McKinsey or Google, we kill off shop classes in high school, we buy stuff that has to be thrown out and replaced every few years because it can’t be repaired, and then we wonder and bemoan that we no longer do physical work. Maybe that is because the message our society is sending is that physical work is not valued. And maybe that message is a mistake.
Sorry for the extended rant in response to your nice little blog post. I think while you touch on some valid points, the overall post feels superficial to me. You take the results of a really deep problem with our economic and political system and make it feel like a minor self-help “life hack.” Yes, if we each start to get more in touch with physical work and pay more attention to the results of our work, that would be a good start. But it is only a start.
The ultimate fruit of digital work—in my case, data analysis and pubishing—are indeed worthwhile if there’s a direct connection between the work and the results. But spending three hours a day on email, most of which is not really important to my work, is ridiculous. So why do I do it? Because, frankly, I could get all my work done in three days during most workweeks. Studies show that employees with a four-day work week (or equivalently reduced hours) are just as productive and have a better work-life balance as well. Better mental health, and some real time free to do other things that matter. I point out that France has had a 35-hour workweek for decades, and they have many more paid holidays that the U.S. does. This means frequent days off and a rich culture which is nourished by society and their government. Yet they have a very productive economy. And, I point out, strong unions in almost every sector of their economy.
In the US, everyone is climbing over everyone else hoping that they’ll make it to the top or that the company owners will pay everybody else decent wages out of the goodness of their hearts. It hasn’t happened yet. I’m old enough to remember the 1950s and 60s, and seeing this apathy in the workplace, it’s as if the working class and the middle class in America have committed suicide. Your observations about sending our manufacturing to China are spot-on. There is something deeply, fundamentally wrong with a society that pits segments of itself against one another by its very design and structure. Employees should not be seen as a nuisance cost to be minimized in order to get more desirable profits for the company that relies on these workers to both make the products/services and consume them (and by workers I mean managerial and knowledge workers too—-both are “work”). I’m not sure what the solution is exactly; maybe something like in France or Germany. In the US the dynamic of the “free economy” is only half-working because people have given up. It’s as if people are just waiting for a better system to come along. It could be the Chinese system where what we know as freedoms and dissent are crushed (or more accurately are marginalized by the desire for unity and harmony); the government does seem to take care of its people, and abuses in the banking and financial industry and government corruption are met with a swift death sentence or no-nonsense re-education. China already owns or controls much of the manufacturing economy of the western world—because we’ve handed it to them. It’s not so far-fetched that it will control or dictate our social, economic and government systems of the future.
My mom, a teacher, had no manual skills except embroidery. She was raised by a German mother who thought every woman had to have embroidery skills to be marriageable. Unfortunately, she was never much of a cook, so I ended up teaching myself that skill starting at age 13 and she gratefully fled the kitchen. I learned to love gardening from my dad, both food and flowers. I’d go on to have huge gardens that took me years to prep and get growing as they were mostly perennial beds but with room for my beloved vegetables. I also had a knack for tools and math so I ended up an engineer.
My brother, though, is the craftsman. Despite degrees in forestry, landscape design, and park management, plus an extra in education as he taught shop for 11 years, he became happy running his own machine shop. He learned to do decorative blacksmithing while still teaching and forged all the hinges and latches for the doors and cabinets in his 1824 home. He also built 2 additions on the house, 3 on the big barn, and built a ledge barm made mostly of wood timbered from his own land. He cannot garden at all and ‘cooking’ means making a sandwich. His hobby of restoring brassage cars is also a parttime business as he does the work for others who lack his skills and vast array of equipment.
Both of us found working with our hands, in very different ways, a satisfying outlet. For me it was a break from corporate demands, for him it became his job and his hobby. There is something soul-satisfying in looking at a completed project and saying, “I did that and man, it’s great!”
My opinion of Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft” is decidedly different than yours. Part of that comes from the near-uselessness of the motorcycles Crawford makes; almost the antithesis of craftsmanship, since their utility is non-existent. I worked in manufacturing for 40 years and loved the art of making things well in quantity. When Reagan and the mismanagment class started disassembling American manufacturing, it felt like the beginning of the end to me. Tossing out the move to the metric system, as a first act of incompetence, Reagan insured that US-made products wouldn’t have a home in the rest of the world (ROW). Some companies ignored that foolishness and moved themselves into the 19th Century (when the metric system was substantially adopted by the industrialized world) and they have stayed alive as a result. Most of that group moved their manufacturing operations offshore to obtain access to mathematically literate workers, even if that move also provided cheaper labor.
Working with your hands and mind isn’t anywhere near as utopian as this author remembers. I suspect that engine he made with his grandfather is the last one he ever made. It’s dirty, dangerous, and chemically hazardous work. You can lose a finger or a whole hand in a fraction of a second on an end mill or a bandsaw. There are reasons, good or not, why educated, skilled people gravitate away from manual skills. I suspect it will take a long term and deep depression before US citizens re-calibrate themselves to actual work and real skills. The current designation of “critical worker” should turn on some thought-bulbs, but I don’t think we are yet that aware of what the term “critical” really means. From the strange angry comments I’ve read from the wingnuts to imagine every job that puts food on someone’s table is “critical,” I don’t have much hope that will change in my lifetime.
I ran across this post at random and am responding, though I’ve never seen your posts before. I’m at the other end of the spectrum from most responders. I am a maker at the higher end, though I earned a degree in mathematics. My furniture was selected for the Smithsonian show this year. In making furniture I have a connection to the physical world at a core level. I study the patterns of grain and color and marvel at how they emerged from a seed in the ground, then I decide how best to highlight the spectacle. Somewhere in the process, bits of understanding about the nature of life emerge. When a beautiful object emerges from my mind and hand as if by magic, I feel full, and in that fullness I desire nothing more than to live in that fullness. I never encountered any of this sense while writing code or writing arcane proofs of theorems. Those actions never connected me to the fundamental process of being a life form on this planet.
It’s funny, I’ve started doing some stuff that I thought I hated but is now bringing me a good deal of pleasure.
I started shaving at 13, so I’ve got over 30 years of it behind me. With the standard disposable razors and spray foam soaps, I thought I hated it to the point that I just let my beard go a few times over the years for 8-10 months with just enough trimming to keep the mustache out of the way while eating. I’ve gone 3+ months without a shave at least a dozen times. During the pandemic, I decided to try something on a whim and ordered a starting kit for wet shaving from Wet Shaving Club. It’s taken some getting used to, but now I’m in touch with the grain of my beard on different parts of my face. I love the tactile feel of loading the brush with a hard disc of shaving soap, I’m geeking out about using different blades in the double sided safety razor, and I just ordered an alum block and some pre shave oil to smooth out the process even more. I’ve been clean shaven more in the last 6 weeks than I was in probably the previous 5-6 years.
The other big one is working in the yard. I have an electric mower and trimmer/edger, because the yard is small and the amount of fuel spilled by people every year just gassing up their mower is immense, but I still wasn’t enjoying it. The whole process seemed dumb and I just wanted to pay someone to spray, fertilize, etc. I’ve recently tried out a friend’s push reel mower (I’ve got a 1500 sq ft house on a less than 0.25 acre lot) and really enjoyed it. It went so well I just bought my own, and now I’m suddenly into the idea of getting the yard looking good and have an order in to get a couple of sprayers and the various suggested weed killers for my area.
I’m already looking for what’s next.
Joe, consider not using chemicals on your lawn if you have pets or children that will be ‘on’ that lawn. I know weeds will grow in the absence of weed killing chemicals but does that really matter? I have 2 dogs that run around in my back yard. They eat the grass almost every time they are out there.
Literally everything is made of chemicals, and chemical phobia is akin to flat earth belief or moon landing denial. I’ll gladly spray what works best and thank the scientists who developed it.
Absolutely correct but I think that Kelly is talking about chemicals not fit for ingestion or exposure.
None of those are present in the sprays sold to individuals. Even the boogeyman RoundUp (glyphosate) isn’t what the organic/natural blogosphere would have us believe. It’s less toxic than things like table salt, Vitamin D3, and ibuprofen with a half life of 47 days, and the largest quantity ever found in food eaten by humans was so small that you would have to eat 176 bowls of cereal in 3 hours to hit a high enough quantity to even potentially have any effect at all.
I’ll take the stuff that has actual FDA approval over all the home made and natural solutions out there.
I’m one of the Chemical Engineers who designs the facilities that make those chemicals. To be honest, I work on the petrochemicals side of things, but I’m certainly not ignorant about the industry.
Back in the day, chemical companies convinced people that clover is a weed. The problem is that the herbicides they wanted to sell kill clover. So convince people that it needs to go so you can sell your herbicide. Great, idea right? There’s another benefit, too. Clover has the ability to fix nitrogen (with the help of bacteria in the soil). Get rid of the clover, and now you can sell people nitrogen based fertilizers that they’ll need since they got rid of their clover.
My lawn is full of clover. I love watching the bees travel from flower to flower. I love walking on it with my bare feet. I love looking for four leaf clovers.
My lawn is full of dandelions – another ‘weed’ people try to eradicate from their lawns. Dandelions send down deep roots that bring minerals up from the subsoil. I eat the greens in salads in early spring and hope to use the flowers to make dandelion wine soon. I love seeing the yard blanketed in yellow every year, and watching my daughter blow the seeds through the air.
I could go on and on about all of the different ‘weeds’ growing in my yard and how much I enjoy them.
I’ve seen you comment on a number of posts on this blog. We’ve probably got a lot in common. Please consider that a more natural approach to lawn maintenance aligns very, very well with the ‘deep life’. This Chemical Engineer has certainly found it to be true.
And if you really do want to have a neat grass lawn… perhaps consider mechanical means instead of chemical. I think that would align better with the blog post we’re commenting on, don’t you?
One thing to add… can you imagine Thoreau taking a hike to town from Walden Pond to pick up weed killer? I can’t…
Although I have degree in biochemistry, I eventually chose to work on air crafts as my primary occupation. It gives me a sense awe, and profound understanding, of how these machines actually fly, with their myriad of complex systems. What’s funny is that most of the glory goes to the pilots, and us, the maintainers, are usually relegated to the background. Hmmm; if they only knew what we know-lol…
It is interesting that you see manual labour as a relief. I am sure that those whom work with their hands, whether in a factory churning out the same part, day after day, or those whom remove rocks for a living by spade and shovel, would find little joy in spending yet more hours doing physically exhausting work.
I think that whatever line of work we do, we get tired of it, and something new is interesting as long as it is novel. If the author worked in an engine factory, he would have a whole different impression of building an engine. While constructing an engine was interesting as a child for him, especially since it allowed him to spend time with his grandfather, it would be a far different experience even if as a child he was expected to build engines routinely; or if his grandfather forced him to build engines in order to eat dinner.
Personally, growing up in Appalachia in a trailer without running water or electric, I was forced to do hard physical labour from childhood on. Whether it was taking a bucket to the well to grab five gallons of water to flush our non functioning toilet with (because my stepfather refused to pay to have it fixed), or it was having to chop tobacco with a garden spade for money that he took, daily physical labor soon lost it’s novelty to me. Thus as an adult, I despised work for years, as the only work I was able to obtain required exhaustive physical effort, whether it was in construction, food service, or transportation.
We always see the proverbial grass as greener on the other side; the key to fulfillment is doing a variety of things, both physical and mental, and not doing the same thing, over and over again, whether you are an office-worker or a fieldworker.
How did you ultimately deal with despising work? Did you find a solution? I’m in a similar situation.
We have strayed from vocational training in our schools. I got an excellent education through my high school. By the time I graduated I was a registered second year electrical apprentice. I learned a manual trade. We have seen how the pandemic has changed the way we educate, now we have an opportunity to fix this issue hand in hand with the way we educate. I see no reason vocational trades can’t be expanded to teach additional skills as you learn. You need math and language skills for every trade. Why not learn those right along with a valuable skill. Maybe this is the time to re-examine the way we prepare people for work.
My greatest pleasure from working comes from my manual endeavors. Check out my wood carvings.
I had worked in the IT field for seven years. During this time, my mind was constantly filled with meetings, messages and server configurations. What I have always loved to do is a project I started some years ago. To rebuild my 1965 MG, MGB. I have gone through every system, rebuilt the engine, carbs, and gearbox along with the rear axle. Now I have to tackle the ever rusting body of my much abused little roadster. It is very intimidating to me to cut parts of the car away, and hope that my welding skill holds up, and lets me drive the little red sportscar again. I have always loved working with my hands, and I am hoping to put more manual work into things.
I felt huge pleasure and self-esteem,… programming.
My father was an engineer, and I was doubtful between science and “prestige” as a lawyer. Until my older sister started programming. I, triying to emulate her, started a set of IBM courses; to make the story short, in my 33 years on back-office software development, and in every program that I developed, and/or maintained, fed back great sense of productivity to me.
As I came to understand what is all about:
Each thing we produce, is a projection of us. When we look at that thing, we see… ourselves.
What is what God meant when He, said simply: Grow and Multiply.
Multiply is easy, let’s say; but grow, means not just muscle and/or wealth; to grow means Create. To Grow means to Develop Humanity.
What is why is so important to demand from our government to provide space and means for us The People to work, produce and emulate ever so modestly, Him.
That is why work is so satisfactory, to me.
I don’t work in the digital field. I work at a small factory that builds circuit boards. Basically I’m fairly poor. I make about twice what my bills are monthly. Last summer I built a chain link fence around my property – post hole digging is hard work. I was super satisfied when it was done. Last weekend I flushed the radiator in my car, changed the oil, plugs and filters – more satisfaction. This summer I plan to build a carport and a variant of a masonry stove in my basement. Both of which will give me a ton of happiness. I have noticed that doing things with my hands is really enjoyable for me.
I’m also an online gamer, so I build my own PC’s to play my games. Plus I have Microsoft and CompTIA certifications. I just really like building things.
You don’t have to be an expert in any field to build stuff. Just research it until you can grasp a good understanding and then just go for it. Trial and error with a successful outcome is pretty amazingly satisfying.
After earning a BA in English I spent two decades as a self-employed woodworker,carpenter, cabinetmaker. Thinking something was “missing”, I took a sabbatical to earn a Master’s in English. What did I gain? Essentially perspective … as I grew acutely aware of just how incredibly wonderful what I had been doing all along actually “was”. I returned to my craft for another two decades and loved & respected every minute.
In times as these, I hearken back to what Robert Frost recommended – when faced with uncertainty, “give it form”, by which he meant to go build something, chop wood, fix a fence, do something physical – because what you really need is a sense of control. There is no uncertainty in building a chair – you will either be able to sit in it or you’ll fall on your keister … not much in between, haha.
Does anyone here appreciate the irony? We are discussing our waste of time, physical dexterity and digital dissatisfaction satisfaction in a blog? Nuff said! I’m going to the garage work on my truck.
When I was growing up, my dad grew a huge garden that fed us all. I did not participate; digging in the dirt was boring. In college, I had to learn how to use power tools for a theater class, including a scary table saw. I didn’t like it. When I graduated, I got a job as an English teacher. In summers off from my teaching job, I wanted work that resulted in a product I could SEE, as opposed to the towering stacks of papers I graded and returned for students to revise before I read them again–so I planted seeds and watched them grow. I planted trees. My side gig as a teacher was to produce plays, and one of my tasks in that endeavor was to design and build the sets. Over the years, I layered new skills over my basic theater building knowledge to improve my home; over the years, my garden grew. Now I am retired. My house is snug. My garden feeds me and gives my neighbors joy. I build garden structures, custom objects that are one-of-a-kind, including a five-foot-tall Little Free Library shaped like a dragon and made from a water softener, a tomato cage, a bicycle seat, old football pads, catfood can lids, and spray paint. “Robin” is a focal point in my garden, and she exists because my dad passed along a latent gardening gene and because I learned in college how to use tools.
I liked what Vince Porter said. “Power tools could never be used as a substitute for Valium”. I am a mechanic by trade and most of the time it’s necessary to used power tools to complete a job quickly, but not at home. I enjoy my job because the end result is repairing something that was in some way broken. And I believe a lot of people enjoy their jobs because what they do does have an end result. That being said, a friend comes to mind that moved from a small city to a large city, having to sell their house and live in an apartment.. Almost all of her work is done on a computer for for 60 hours a week and she says she really misses going out to work in her yard to unwind. There is a lot of therapeutic value to physical labor and maybe that’s why some of us are so stressed. End results are ok, but physical labor is therapy.
I think this need to create something physical and meaningful is the reason for the enduring popularity of quilting and knitting. I am an attorney who worked for 40 years in government affairs, always writing about abstract ideas. At the end of the day, I have always found relaxation in sewing and embroidery, creating something beautiful out of basic materials, sometimes even scraps that might otherwise have been thrown away. The process used a different side of my brain and personality, and it resulted in a concrete accomplishment very different from the work on which I spent my professional life.
After I earned my degree in academic psychology I worked as a carpender.
I spent three years with emails, shallow work and learning publication dates of papers by hard. Some things I learned were useful of course but most of it was useless. I never even had to write anything on a physical paper. All I did was looking a powerpoint slides and cross of in single choice tests. My own ideas were irrelevant. Creativity was suppressed. Only recall. Three years.
I struggled to find purpose. This took a toll on my mind. I needed to work with my hands afterwards. There is deep satisfaction to be found in craftsmanship. Even intellectual satisfaction.
As Peter Korn writes in his book >Why We Make Things & Why It Matters<: "My father had opined that woodworking would leave me intellectually unfulfilled. But I found that even so simple an operation as cutting a mortise harmonizes intellect, manual skill, an character in a way that underscores the artificiality of the Cartesian divide between mind and body. […] There is a deep centeredness in trusting one's hands, mind, and imagination to work as a single, well-tuned instrument."
Now I am back to intellectual work but I will never forget this lesson.
Thank you Cal for a super post.
Im comment # 75?
The quantity of comments and stories points to just how many of us value “real” & tangible. (Over “digital”).
Its so refreshing to read deep, meaningful content from readers who are like minded.
Thanks to all.
This is what I had been thinking about for years, what can we do to return SHOP classes to the schools. I have been a maker/ inventor/ engineer ( did not complete college ) all of my life, from boats to model airplanes and to real parts for real airplanes, I have designed, projected, build and repair countless devices and products. Nothing that breaks in my house gets thrown away without first going thru a thorough examination to verify if it can be fixed, and most of the time that is what happens. Even my car license plate is PapaFyx. I have learned and preached the gospel of DIY, helped many kids fix their bikes and toys. In the 90’s had a chance to learn and eventually purchased SolidWorks, which seemed to connect with my brains way to create 3D objects and mechanisms. The list of new and improved “things” that I produced over the years is way too big for this comment, but the satisfaction of seeing every one of them come to fruition has been the juice that powered my life.
A few years ago I was, for various reasons, kept from working in the garage for a while and was slowly loosing health and the ability to fix things, had a heart attack and was always feeling low and sickly until I decided to shake it and return to my “doings” a few months ago. My wife has often commented on the improvements of my health and overall attitude. The working with my hands and brain again returned my health and reinvigorated me.
Today I will have my birthday party, in the front lawn of the house, with all the required masks and distancing as prescribed, with my friends relatives coming for cake and to sing Happy Birthday for my 80 years.
In the 1960’s I was working on software for the new at the time mainframe computers and renovating a farm. I found mucking horse stalls and fretting over complex software were very compatible. The farm made sure that I was never awake worrying, you get and needed lots of sleep. Ever since I have tried to keep the mental-physical balance.
As a ranch wife and in 2 weeks, never a public educator again after 17yrs of mindless drivel, I relate.
My husband gets to live this wonderful hands on life and for 17 yrs I have been mentally tortured trying to force children to learn in a mind numbing mental prison.
I have to work, but I’d rather eat nails than di that crap anymore.
Thank you for this insightful piece.
At the age of 73, I cannot recall a time when I did not engage both my mind and hands in nature and firmly immerse myself in projects. From carpentry to welding; mechanics to watercolor painting; carving to stagecraft (and more), it nurtured me and I kept wanting and learning more.
When computers and the internet came along I jumped in without hesitation. I embraced technology just like a tree roots into mother earth, however I never stopped working with my hands.
It is all about connection, attitude and balance, whether immersed in welding, drawing, digging in the soil, making a website or coding.
I am now also a writer. After checking emails, making phone calls and doing all the necessities of my current endeavor, I turn OFF my computer and abandon my cellphone until needed. The internet, social media and emails can be used as tools for research and real meaningful connections, however for the most part have become a bad obsession for idle hands and bored undisciplined minds.
My dad was a loftsman at an aircraft company in the 50’s. He drew lines with slivers of silver on sheets of aluminum so that we could build airplanes. I do the same with a digital line on digital paper. Is what I do less?
It is different. In this context, your father worked with his hands you work with a mouse.
A principle as old as mankind; lost on most, marketed and weaponized by many, cherished and revered by some, and mastered by just a few.
Designing and building something on the screen is nice and eloquent, as a Dipl.-Ing. in Mechanical Engineering I have seen plenty of Digital Designs which can’t be build in reality, eg. a Line of Bearings on a single axis as it looked good, but waste 3 days to R+R to replace a single Bearing. I have a LAthe and stuff and build from scratch, Material, Tools and Techniques, that is how you can express yourself.
I’ve been doing my own repairs and fabrications for many decades. In my lifetime, I have never paid any outside contractors for any work.
When I was young, we moved every few years. Usually, that meant having a house built. Part of the deal was that I was expected to work with every single crew that worked on the house, from the surveyors to the finish carpenters. Obviously, early on I was mostly fetching or carrying, and probably in the way. But by the time I was 16, I could actually be useful in all those jobs.
My Dad and I built hot rods and boats, modified engines, all those sorts of things. I was unaware that other folks did not normally do this.
Dad and I both had interesting professional careers, but our free time has always been about making stuff. I find the process intensely satisfying, and the more complicated the project, the better I like it.
I am getting into my 50s now, and really just starting to hit my stride as a craftsman. It is very satisfying not only to have produced an object that is well made and designed, but to also be able to say that I made the tools that were used to make that object.
But almost anything can be a craft that one strives to perfect. My mom had a lesson for me when I was about six years old. We had taken some cows to the butchers, and were sitting in their break room for some reason. We listened as two of the workers had a long discussion between themselves about the intricacies of wrapping cuts of meat. What my mom made sure I got out of listening was that almost anything can be treated as an art. The difference is the attitude you apply to it. I really try to treat everything as an opportunity to strive for improvement and perfection.
As a metal fabricator and welder (and married to a med student who became a physician before we split up) the similarities between med school and trade school were striking, right down to the apprenticeship aspect of both.
Beyond the philosophical arguments for manual skills, consider the practical advantages. How many of your acquaintances can repair *any* of the devices they surround themselves with? That many originally simple electro-mechanical household devices ( washing machines, dishwashers, water heaters…) now rely on microprocessor chips doesn’t help any.
I’m a 69 year old male, and have always been to poor to have someone else repair those everyday objects we all use. So, I am able to repair our washing machine, tools, vehicles, the roof, computer, cell phone, house wiring, plumbing, etc. If I can’t fix it, it doesn’t get fixed. I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction over the years by being more self reliant. I always wanted enough money to have someone else do these things for me. Your article has given me a new perspective. I’m richer than I thought. Thanks so much.
Like the Moody Blues album title goes, “It’s a Question of Balance.”
A retired social worker(MSW), certified investigator and first responder.
My only famous line is,”Why don’t we start by putting down the knife.”
My wife and I have lived on our farm for 43 years and raised three fine young men.
Build air-cooled Porsche and VW engines while listening to opera and John Lee Hooker.
Always striving for balance.
I once met a 97 year-old English gent who worked on the design of the Spitfire when he was a young engineer in the 1930s. He told me his training included two-months of hands-on work in each aspect of aircraft manufacture: engine, fuselage, etc.
“So,” I asked him, “if you had a pile of metal and the right tools, you could make a Spitfire from scratch?”
He gave a little laugh.
“Well, I suppose I could.”
I often work with my hands (and brain) – welding, getting wood, etc. I seem to explore every wrong pathway before I find the right one and my work is amateurish, if serviceable. It is fulfilling, though. Thank you for your post.
Two years ago I took old cedar planks from a playground set and made it into a workbench. That was the start of many rehab projects where I made something new out of something old. The process encapsulates everything I preach about in organizational design.Have a plan, set meaningful times for execution, don’t rush the process – and expect failures to happen. The process teaches you goal setting, accountability and patience. I made a lot of new stuff, but the goals always end up being the icing on the cake – the real reward is the journey and the strength it gives you.
THANK YOU for coining a term that encapsulates my professional trajectory: chief workflow officer.
For the past 12 years I have been gathering experience and education that have coalesced into brining data, people, and strategy together. I expected to transition from the military in the next three to six years and now understand what I will be searching for in a second career. My quick Google search doesn’t reveal much in the field, so I will join you in establishing it.
If you ever want to learn what Coast Guard Headquarters is like or find yourself in Southern Maryland looking for coffee, please let me know.
I encourage you to go check out Tom Naughton’s blog–but specifically (if you’re not interested in his nutrition-related content) any of his “farm updates”. He coined the term “dog-tired satisfied” for the joy that comes from doing manual labor on his homestead. (His “day job” is computer programmer FWIW)
I know you’ve said “don’t click like”, but I would if there was a like button on this post. New book!!! ?
oh man, I am a 27 year old man trying to find a way to work with my hands and create objects that can affect reality even in the most humble way, and I really needed to read this, I don´t feel like a lunatic anymore.